Russian officials on Tuesday acknowledged that the chances of fixing a space probe bound for a moon of Mars that got stuck in Earth's orbit are close to zero, Russian news agencies reported.
The unmanned $170 million Phobos-Ground was launched two weeks ago and reached preliminary Earth orbit, but its engines never fired to send it off to the Red Planet. Russian engineers have been trying to retrieve data from the probe as it passes over their territory but haven't established contact.
"We have to be realistic. Since we haven't been able to get in touch with it for such a long time, chances to accomplish the mission are very slim," Roscosmos deputy chief Vitaly Davydov said in remarks carried by the Interfax news agency.
Davydov said that Russian engineers can keep trying until the end of the month to fix the probe's engines to steer it to its path to Phobos, one of Mars' two moons.
Russian scientists could fix the problem if the probe failed because of a software flaw, but some experts think that the failure was rooted in hardware that's difficult to fix.
The failure of the probe could see Russia change its priorities in space research. The Russian space agency will more likely focus on Moon research instead of studying Mars, Davydov said.
The failed spacecraft is 13.2 metric tons (14.6 tons), and most of that weight, about 11 metric tons (12 tons), is highly toxic fuel.
Davydov said Tuesday that Phobos-Ground could crash to Earth some time between late December and late February. The site of the crash cannot be established more than a day in advance, he said.
Davydov insisted that "if you calculate the probability of it hitting somebody on the head, it is close to zero."
A satellite tracking website showed the Mars probe passing over North America on Tuesday morning Moscow time.